Pick of the Week: More is Less

Hope Jahren’s latest book begins at the beginning: her beginning, that is. Born in 1969, her parents picked her first name with typical Midwestern directness, expressing their own hope that their daughter would live a life of plenty, a life better than theirs. Like most parents in our culture, they wanted their child to have more. The rest of the book focuses on how our culture has defined that goal, how we’ve pursued it, and what those choices are costing us and our own descendants.

The Story of More is a story about climate change, but it’s not the one you’re used to hearing. Like other scientists writing on this issue, Jahren summarizes the mountains of data proving that human activity is causing dramatic changes to Earth’s climate, that those changes are accelerating, and that their impact is bad and getting worse. However, she then takes a step back from the typical climate change narrative of data and doom to ask a couple of simple but urgent questions: how did we get here, and what are our options now? Climate change is, after all, something we did to ourselves through a series of deliberate choices. We must understand those choices to find solutions.

Searching for answers, Jahren takes the reader on a guided tour of the modern world, pointing out how everything from our vacation plans to our choice of lunches fits into a pattern of relentless economic growth. She puts this into the context of her own lifespan, a time period most of her readers will be able to conceptualize. Over those fifty-some years, the recurring theme underscores her title, and shows how a global economy built on endless expansion is straining the ecological limits of a finite planet. Year after year, we have more babies, eat more meat, take more flights, drive more miles, buy more consumer goods, and pave more roads. All of these choices have a price beyond the dollars we pay for them, and the bill is coming due.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this type of accounting might be grim and tedious, but Jahren weaves it into a page-turner. Leaping deftly from data to insights, and seasoning her narrative with just the right sprinkling of anecdotes, she achieves that rare balance of making serious science highly readable.

After mapping the path we took to get to the present moment, the book runs through some of the options we have ahead of us. In this analysis, the author is clear-eyed but optimistic. Solar panels and wind farms may help, but ultimately, she argues, we need a fundamental societal shift. We need to stop pursuing more, and instead build our world around enough. Published in March, the book predates the COVID-19 pandemic, so when Jahren was writing this part is must’ve been hard to envision such a revolutionary change. That makes this a particularly timely read.

Almost overnight, we’ve slashed air travel and car commuting, drastically reduced our purchases, and in many ways re-evaluated our priorities. When we get the pandemic under control, will we use this opportunity to rebuild the world better, or will we revert to our old path of destruction? As a lifelong cynic, I’ve been inclined to assume the latter. Having read The Story of More, though, and even in spite of recent events, I see at least some reason to hope.